Opinion

Africa’s forgotten fastest female sprinter, Obuzoeme

It was the race of a lifetime. The title of Africa’s fastest girl was at stake. The lush tartan track in Dakar, Senegal was bearing witness to history in the 1979 African Athletics Championships.

 

The fast girls of African countries that qualified for the 100-meter final were all lined out at the starting-point. All eyes were on the favourite athlete – Ghana’s Hannah Afriyie, who had clinched the gold medals in the 100 and 200 meters races at the 1978 All-Africa Games in Algiers, Algeria. “On your marks!” screamed the starter.

 

The fast ladies knelt behind the starting line, eyes poised at the tape 100 meters ahead. “Get set!” the starter hollered. Tension! Then the starter’s gun went off, and the ladies flew away as one. It was a titanic battle. No inch was given, none taken. It was toe-to-toe, neck-and-neck in the fast bid to breast the tape. The spectators could hardly believe their eyes. A new champion was born: Nigeria’s Obuzoeme Barbara Nsenu!

 

The young Nigerian Obuzoeme had against all odds beaten the celebrated Ghanaian Queen of the Tracks, Hannah Afriyie. Nigerians celebrated with gusto, having produced a star that kept the boastful Ghanaians very quiet.

 

It needs to be recalled that Ghanaian sprinters, male and female, had the bad habit of beating Nigerians on the tracks back then. For instance, the Ghanaian male ace, Ohene Karikari, came to Lagos in 1973 and carted home both the 100 and 200 meters gold medals. Obuzoeme Nsenu, with her victory over Hannah Afriyie, blazed the trail of Nigerian sprinters’ dominance of Africa which over the years produced stars like Rufina Uba, Mary Onyali, Endurance Ojokolo, Blessing Okagbare etc.

 

The exploits of Obuzoeme Nsenu did not stop at the African level. She took her fast feet to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. She won the gold medal at the National Sports Festival in Benin City and at Oluyole Ibadan in 1979.

 

At the Nigeria University Games (NUGA) at University of Benin in 1980, she won the coveted gold medal for the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). But here comes the sad news that should shame us as Nigerians who crow about not forgetting our heroes past.

 

When Obuzoeme Barbara Nsenu died on February 3, 2002, after a terrible battle with cancer, there was no official announcement of her death, and neither was there an official representation at her burial. Cry, the beloved country, as the South African novelist Alan Paton titled his novel.

 

The Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) only gave a one-off N100,000 assistance throughout the period of her ordeal. With this, how can anybody in their right minds question Nigerian athletes defecting to represent other countries? Now that I have raised the Obuzoeme Nsenu instance, I expect the authorities, especially my friend and great compatriot, Sports Minister Sunday Dare, to step in with compassion. Obuzoeme Nsenu’s feats started quite early, from primary school in Onitsha where we grew up. She lived up to her name from the very beginning – Obuzoeme, which translates to, “she who does it first.”

 

She burnt the tracks, always coming first, from her native Anambra State to the national level. When she gained admission to the University of Ife, she fell in love with my football teammate, our goalkeeper Chike Egbunu-Olimene. “I met her on the cinder tracks of Great Ife in February 1980,” Chike said. The lovebirds were in the Great Ife contingent to the NUGA Games of 1980 at the University of Benin, with Chike keeping goal for the football team and Obuzoeme doing her thing in the 100 meters.

 

Obuzoeme and Chike got married in 1982, and had three children, namely: Nonye, Onyeka and Amaka. When Obuzoeme sadly died in 2002, Chike had to shoulder on alone with bringing up the children who eventually all graduated from Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) on the same day in 2010!

 

The erstwhile children are all grown now, and in fact they have become parents themselves. Incidentally, the son Onyeka, also known as Robert, who studied Physical and Health Education (PHE) and did his National Youth Service at the National Sports Commission (NSC) was not absorbed despite having a Second Class Upper degree in the relevant field. What galls in the matter is that ladies and guys without the requisite qualifications got employed, armed with letters of recommendation from Senators and such highly-placed Nigerians.

Uzoatu writes from Lagos

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